WASHINGTON – When President Obama surveyed foreign priorities in his State of the Union speech, Iran topped the list, along with Mideast peace and the administration’s shift of attention to East Asia.
Europe got only glancing mention, with nothing about threats to its security.
Suddenly, Russian troop movements in Ukraine, which U.S. officials now are calling an invasion, have shuffled the president’s foreign policy priorities and set up what Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state, called “the most difficult international crisis of his presidency.”
“This goes directly to vital American interests,” said Burns, who has worked for presidents of both parties. “The response has to be strong, confident leadership.”
Obama came to office hoping to defuse tensions with Moscow and to use Russia’s considerable leverage to help solve world problems.
But President Vladimir Putin has turned out to be a problem, not a solution, as he has challenged U.S. security commitments.
The dividend from the Cold War’s end -- a Europe that is “whole, free and at a peace,” in the words of former President George H.W. Bush -- is now in question as never before, Burns said Sunday in a conference call with reporters sponsored by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research group.
The instability has alarmed NATO members in Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, which are clamoring for reassurance from the Atlantic alliance.
If the United States is seen as unable to stop the threat to Ukraine’s independence, that will raise questions about the core value of North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The danger to allies at the heart of Europe, as well as the continued threat to NATO member Turkey from the Syrian civil war, may make it impossible for the administration to carry out its “pivot” to East Asia. The Russian moves could also force a rethinking of the administration’s plan to roll back military spending and shrink the armed forces.
Obama has no real military option in Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO. U.S. military action would risk a continental war between nuclear powers “which isn’t going to happen,” said Burns, who is now with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
In comments Sunday, administration officials made clear that the U.S. has no intention of challenging Russia militarily over its incursion into Ukraine's Crimea region. And while Republican lawmakers criticized Obama for what they called a weak response, they, too, said they oppose military action.
Instead of using force, the main U.S. effort will be to try to rally the world to push back on Putin. The hope is to prevent Russian troops from advancing beyond Crimea into other parts of Ukraine that have large Russian-speaking populations and to impose long-term financial penalties on Russia for its actions.
Beyond that, the administration may face tough questions about indirect military involvement, such as providing money, arms or other support to the relatively weak Ukrainian military, particularly if the Russians don’t stop at the Crimean border.
The administration has sought to have Europe be the primary actor on the messy problem of Ukraine, a corrupt and bankrupt state. But Europe repeatedly has shown difficulty stepping into a leadership role.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Sunday that he had talked this weekend with 10 of his counterparts and that all were ready to take diplomatic and economic steps against Russia.
Among the seven largest industrialized nations “every single one of them are prepared to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia,” Kerry said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “They’re prepared to put sanctions in place. They’re prepared to isolate Russia economically.”
But rallying the most influential nations to act on those words may be harder.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, has said little about the crisis. Germany, Europe’s wealthiest and often most-influential country, often has been reluctant to penalize the Russians, who provide much of Germany's natural gas.
[Updated, 6 p.m., March 2: The Group of 7 industrialized nations announced late Sunday that they had agreed to suspend preparations for the G-8 meeting in June in Russia. Germany at first resisted pressure to cancel the meeting. And German officials have said they are reluctant to impose economic sanctions on Russia, which they argue would hurt export-reliant Germany as well.]
“For too long, we have heard U.S. officials say repeatedly, ‘the Europeans are taking the lead,’” analysts Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote this week. “That needs to stop.”
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